I see her push away the dinner plate slowly, with the same painstaking attention she uses to hide the letters from her father. She zealously guards his reputation; if I threaten it, she throws a rope around my neck and pulls. Yesterday he was late picking her up. I said softly and to no one, “God, why is that man never on time?”
“You’re always complaining,” she whipped at me. Laura ran the water way too long, then filled her glass one-third full.
“Your father is a fine man,” I said.
She turned off the faucet, leaned back against the sink, and faced me.
“If he’s so fine, why’d you split up with him?”
She tells me how angry she is because Chris never showed up as promised at the soccer field after school, and she was left alone and embarrassed. “Laura,” I say, “just tell Chris how you feel —”
“Talking about feelings is crap,” she answers. She sits inside her oversize navy blue T-shirt on the couch. I see the crumpled tissues beside her bed. “All you talk about are feelings. It changes nothing. All these people talking about what they want and thinking it’s some kind of progress.”
“You’ve been crying,” I say.
She says, “You don’t want to know.” She’s right; I understand that there is a place inside her that ripped apart when Charles and I split up. It is not mended. It may never mend, and through its jagged opening Laura peers out at this world.
I see her lolling in her sad garments and tell her sadness is her comfort. She tells me to get lost. Sometimes I try to comfort her, to touch her, and it is like trying to touch a bird. Always she has been hard to hold; from the first I felt as if she were a bird fluttering its wings inside the cage of my ribs. Now she is preparing to get out, and our blood, hers and mine, knows it’s time.
Once we went to the aquarium and saw two white whales mating. The room was dark and crowded, the tank for the whales well lit and not much larger than their bodies. They were riveting as they rolled over and around each other, again and again. The hall was a tomb; even the children were silent. The movement was more fluid than water, forms swirling around each other, being two and one at once. The only sound was that of the water they moved, a sound muffled by the thick plate of glass. Laura was six. She held my hand, hers was in a mitten. When the event was over I said, “Wasn’t that amazing?” and Laura looked up at me as if I were tainted.
I am. I say I’m sorry too often and repeat, “Wasn’t that amazing,” when silence would do better. I fear the drafty cracks through which ill winds might blow.
“If I say anything to you now, it won’t help.” We are in the living room. Laura is seventeen; she sits with her knees to her chin and her eyes closed. She is trying not to cry. Her face is red.
“I don’t know what to say,” I say. I feel like I am trying to extricate a hook from my flesh. “I don’t know how to help you.”
A single tear escapes her clenched eyes. I do not wipe this tear from her cheek, I do not put my arm around her shoulders, I do not stroke her hair, I do not set myself on the floor beside her feet, I do not cry.
“You need to get some professional help,” I tell her. “You have a terrible self-image. I don’t know why, but you do. I am making you a cup of tea.”
A few days later, Laura tells me about a dream she had in which she is dressed in a white gown and surrounded by grinning dolphins with scarves around their necks. She looks down and the same scarf is in her lap, but she does not put it on.
“The dream means you are being invited to become one of many, to join with humanity; it is a good dream,” I say.
She says, “They were dolphins!”
“No matter,” I say. “Dreams tell you things your regular mind can’t. They are gifts.” She looks up at me with a little smile.
Two years later, when Laura is away at school, she writes me a letter:
Jay, the pottery teacher, is good although kind of cold. I am learning how to use the wheel. He says I have talent, but really it’s that I sit at the wheel working until my hands hurt. He plays Thelonius Monk all the time. Do you know him? He is great. Also, by the way, Jay is married, or was, and has two cute kids. Why he has this girlfriend is a good question, but I’m not asking, of course. Speaking of which, the boys up here are all like limp bean sprouts — skinny, vegetarian types. You could push them over with one yoga breath. What is their problem?
This is how she eats: she puts a small amount of salad, potato, or beans onto her plate. She holds her fork loosely and concentrates on something that has nothing to do with food. I can’t tell if this something is inside her, or outside, but when I watch her eat, inside and outside seem the same. She doesn’t think about the starving children in India, although if she did, she’d never be duped, as I was, into associating their salvation with the need to empty her plate. I watch her small bites. My grandmother, for whom she was named, would have said, “She picks.” Laura always leaves half her food spread over her plate or piled to one side, then drinks seltzer and complains about how full she is.
“Of what?” I ask, feeling the stretch of my own stomach.
“I ate a lot,” she says.
I nod. “Like a bird,” I say, and she disagrees, goes to the tape deck, and inserts Dire Straits.
“This okay?” she asks.
Laura loathes when I cry.
“You’ve been crying,” she jabs when no one else would notice.
“A little,” I say, or I deny it. Confessing one’s tears to an opponent of sadness in any form but her own is not a good strategy. Better to cry on a tree trunk.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“I don’t want to go into it,” I say.
“But I thought we were friends.” Laura likes this line. I do too, but most of the time it doesn’t work.
“Not now, okay?” She looks away, and picks at her cuticles, and says okay. She wants to even up the score and she’s lost a chance.
Laura is happy this summer after her first year of college. She is working in Maine, a rocky state with rich people along its coast and poor ones inland. This summer Laura has two friends — Stacy, a large blonde who is good at math, and Sharon, a tall girl who stares at you directly, red-cheeked and sturdy.
Laura leaves for work each morning at 5. She drives in the dark to a pier and boards the Seventh Season, a boat that takes tourists out to see birds, whales, seals, dolphins, and other inhabitants of the northern Atlantic. She sits on top of the boat’s upper deck, bundled in polypropylene because even July is cold. She has a Red Sox cap on her head, and the binoculars I bought her in her hand. She scans the ocean, and when she sights a thing of interest, she speaks into a microphone — for example, “Shearwaters, northwest.” The captain of the ship, an old-timer with a stereotypical Maine accent — a great guy, Laura says — then revs the engine and steers toward her sighting. In such ways Laura controls a small amount of the world’s commerce.
There are many kinds of hunting, and this is the hunting of the eyes. No spears, guns, nets — just binoculars, Peterson’s guides to birds, diagrams of humpbacks, minkies, finbacks.
What is it the ocean allows her that terrestrial life denies? Was she joyous in the waters of the womb? Was the transition to land complex and depleting? I see her peering out from under the brim of her cap, her face chapped from the sun in spite of my numerous lectures about the need for sunscreen. I see her eyes fixed on a prize, the hope of a pulsing entity, feathered or finned, who lives outside the ocean of her body, a thing that can fly, dipping only to grab what food it needs from the ocean’s surface, or the fish itself, vigilant and economical, propelling itself ahead, two eyes open, unblinking.
We are lying on the grass in front of the small terminal at Logan Airport killing time before Bar Harbor Airways lifts Laura up and away to school. We aren’t having fun at all; the grass scratches my legs and arms, the air is mean with engines, and Laura mean with grief. She lies on her back, her arm over her face. She makes awful snuffing sounds, and her nose leaks.
“What’s wrong? Would you just say it?” I’ve been hunting for hours and all I’ve gotten is a muffled “Tim,” the name of Laura’s sort-of high-school boyfriend. He had been her real boyfriend once; now it is sort of.
“You can’t do this,” I say, lying on my side. “You just can’t.”
Laura continues to do it. Three feet in front of us a minibus comes to a stop, the driver opens the door, leans down, and stares at us. He begins to speak, and then thinks better of it. He shuts the door and pulls off.
“It’s absurd,” I say. “Just pull yourself together. You have to get on an airplane in ten minutes.” Laura rolls onto her side and faces away from me. I wish she’d keep on rolling like she did down hills when she was three and laughed. I move closer. “Sit up,” I say. “You have to sit up.” She sits up and stares off in the distance.
“This is not fun for me, believe me. We are now going to go inside. You are going to get on the plane. You will be back at school in an hour. You are lucky that your father and I are paying for this. You are lucky you don’t have to sit on the bus for twelve hours.”
“Ma,” she says, looking at me. “I can’t do it, I can’t.” The tears again.
“You can.” I take her arm and we walk into the terminal. I buy her a chocolate croissant and put it in her gray, oversize backpack.
At the gate people stare. Even though Laura has stopped crying, everyone can tell we are in trouble. We sit as far as possible from the other passengers.
“Laura,” I say, “I love you and you will be okay. You will sit in a seat and look —”
She interrupts, “I hate flying.”
“I know you do, but you love birds and they fly and Dad and I spent $138 for one lousy ticket and you will take it from my hand and you will walk on your own two feet and get on that plane.”
When she mumbles okay, I take up where she left off — my eyes fill.
“I love you, honey,” I say. “You’ll be okay.”
I watch her walk to the plane. I hope some kindly old woman will sit next to her and distract or heal her, I hope the reign of terror will end, that the queen of hearts will rule over her in a more generous fashion soon, and obscure ruler that she is, she will somehow grow more kindly toward this girl.
It didn’t happen in the tradition of the ancients, with certitude, with a sign or miracle. The rain did not rain down, the sea did not part. But just as much of life occurs behind our backs or off to the side, so one holiday I realized that Laura was better. She was visiting and I grew brave, tested the waters. “Oh, the black-and-blue combo,” I said, looking down at her clothing.
She looked up without a hint of antagonism. “I really ought to get some other colors.” She was smiling.
There had been another crisis, a truncated trip to Alaska replete with tearful phone calls, but she stuck it out for two months and saw penguins. I was proud. There is still lamentation, but it is minor and predictable, as is my own. She has a new boyfriend who is bright and kind. More important, she has managed to find a ledge inside herself. She sits there often in a fresh, warm air. Her face has grown softer and appears lit. I love to look at her.
Restraint sometimes has the hardest of hands — this is something I have learned. I’ve watched Laura and held my breath, bit my lips; I often have to turn myself to stone. The sea is still at her feet, its lure still in her ears, but the disturbance has grown dimmer. The ledge still holds, and I pray that it will continue to. I do not pray in words or in my mind. It is the prayer of my own body’s ordinary breath. I want that ledge buttressed by something thick and beautiful, black and dense as Precambrian rock, more than two billion years old.